What is a Plot, How is it different from a Story and Summary, and How the Heck Do You Structure Any of That?!
Have you been trying to write your story, but feel like something’s off?
Maybe you need a little help understanding how to put a story together?
Or maybe you just want someone to explain what the heck a plot is!
Well, good news, everyone!
Today I’m going to explain the basics of what a plot is, and how you want to structure it.
Let’s get your writing into shape! Uh, I mean, structure.
Eh, structure doesn’t have that cliché ring to it.
What is plot?
So what is plot?
Well, put simply, the plot is the series of events that happen in your story.
It’s a beginning, middle, and end.
It’s getting from point 1 to 2 to 3.
And so on, and so forth.
Most stories have a plot (some have multiple!), but not all of them!
Some stories focus on exploring a setting, emotion, moment, idea, character, etc.
For example, vignettes are a type of story where there is typically no plot.
According to Wikipedia, their focus “is a short and descriptive piece of writing that captures a brief period in time.”
They’re like one of those large paintings of a scene, but instead it’s a written work of art.
Wait, there’s a difference between story and plot?
It’s kinda weird, so lemme explain.
Plot vs. Story
As I said in the beginning, a plot is the series of events that happen in your story.
So what does that make a story?
Well, a story is the entire thing!
It’s the characters, themes, setting, and plot!
For example, think about all the aspects that go into, say, a movie.
A movie isn’t just a story.
Parts of a movie can include:
plot, script, actors, directors, producers, make-up artists, sound, lighting, music, SFX, ect.
It’s the same with a story!
Parts of a story can include the plot, but it isn’t the only part.
This brings me to another point: plot and summary are also not the same things.
Plot vs Summary
As an example of a summary, let’s take a look at the bakery story we’ve been talking about these past couple of weeks.
The summary of that story is this:
A thief’s living a life of petty crime and scammin’.
After another failed scam, they enter a bakery where they find the tastiest muffins they’ve ever had, and remember their childhood dream of owning a bakery.
The thief decides to steal the muffin recipe and open their own bakery.
After repeated visits to the bakery to taste the muffins while the thief plans their heist, the baker there offers to teach the thief how to bake some things (not the muffin recipe).
They become friends after a while, and the thief becomes conflicted about stealing the recipe. But they still go forward with the theft.
Once they break in and are about to steal it, they hesitate and the baker ends up catching them in the act.
But the baker is understanding of their new friend’s situation and offers them a job at the bakery.
The two become lifelong friends, and they live happily ever after. The end.
And that’s the summary!
And it sounds like a plot, a story, and a summary all at once.
So what’s the difference?
- The story is the entirety of the story with all the details, scenes, and characters.
- The summary is a way to explain the story in fewer words.
- The plot is the specific events that happen in the story, and how you get to each individual event.
As an example, the plot would look more like the outline I made for this story in last week’s post.
Looking at the summary I made above, the plot would look more like this:
- The thief was walking home from another failed scam.
- On this walk, the thief thought about how crummy their life is.
- When they turned a corner, they saw a new bakery had opened up a few blocks away from their apartments.
- They went inside and bought a couple of muffins.
And so on and so forth.
It looks a lot more like an outline: a long list of events from your story.
And I suppose you could interpret the plot and outline as being the same, and that wouldn’t necessarily be wrong!
It is called “plotting,” after all.
To me, the only difference is the outline is the actual list that you reference while you write, and the plot is the events that you would write down in the outline.
But enough with the definitions, let’s talk about how to structure a plot.
A plot structure is just that: a structure of your plot.
It’s how your plot points fit together, and how they move from one point to another.
They help identify the important parts of your story, like when does the protagonist start their journey or defeat the antagonist?
A plot structure is just a way of knowing what happens when in your story.
There are many ways to structure a plot, but today I’ll just be going over the 3-act.
As a side note, while researching for this post, I found a question that I hadn’t considered.
“What is an act?”
This is a question I realized I hadn’t really thought of until I found this post on Birth. Movies. Death.
The author Film Crit Hulk says, “THE END OF AN ACT IS A POINT IN THE STORY WHERE A CHARACTER(S) MAKES A CHOICE AND CAN NO LONGER ‘GO BACK.'”
I won’t go into all the details, please read the whole article for a fuller understanding (it’s really interesting!), but the main idea still stands.
I’m going to mention inciting incidents and turning points in the coming sections, that’s what those are.
They’re moments where something meaningful happens that changes the current reality of your character(s).
They’re momentum for the character(s) and the reader to move forward in the story.
Maybe keep that in mind the next time you write something.
And with that small caveat out of the way, let’s move on to the structure!
The A 3-act structure is a very common structure of stories.
It has three parts (or acts), and their order is as follows:
Act 1: The set-up
Act 2: The confrontation
Act 3: The Resolution– Wikipedia (Three-Act Structure)
During act 1, you start by introducing characters, their relationships, the setting, etc.
Basically, how the world works and who’s in it.
Then an issue or problem arises that the character(s) need to fix or solve in some way.
This is known as the inciting incident/turning point, and it’s where we enter act 2.
Act 2 is where the character(s) start attempting to fix the problem.
However, as a writer, you want to cause as many problems for your characters as possible.
You do this by creating more questions about the issue, making the issue worse, or making the issue bigger than the character(s) thought.
Furthermore, you don’t want the characters to stay the same throughout this process.
They need to grow as people, gain skills and/or tools to solve the problem, and have relationships change (for better or worse).
A story isn’t a stagnant thing, it grows and moves as you tell it.
Although I’ve been talking a lot about getting from point to point in a story, you need to have things change and move as you tell it.
Make characters hate each other or fall in love at some point in the story, have a character study/train for a certain skill to reach their goals.
But all that’s more on character development, which will be my final October post next week. So we’ll talk more about that later.
For now, after your character(s) have learned or dealt with more and bigger problems, and changed and grown throughout the story, it’s finally time to have the problem be the worse it’s ever been throughout the story.
The problem now has the most tension, the most on the line, and is the most difficult it’s ever been.
This is another turning point, and this is where we enter act 3.
Act 3 is the time for battle!
Metaphorically speaking, if that’s not what your story includes.
This is where the stakes are at their highest and the climax is nigh.
It’s where the character(s) finally face the problem that they’ve been dealing with this whole time.
Whether it’s a happy, bad, or neutral ending is up to you.
If you want the ending where everyone lives happily ever after, go for it.
If you want one where everyone dies, have at it.
Or maybe, everything isn’t good or bad, it’s just different than before.
Regardless, the problem is resolved one way or another.
This is also where everything starts winding down after the climax, and the character(s) begin living in their new reality (good, bad, or neutral).
By the end of the story, you want the character(s) and world to be different than how they started.
Something should’ve changed by the end, even if that something is the acceptance that everything sucks.
And then your story ends, whether that’s through a solid conclusion or an open-ended one.
Now, let’s go back to the bakery story and briefly summarize the plot.
The thief, after a not great day of scammin’, stops at a bakery on their way home.
They order muffins, and after they taste them, remember their childhood dream of owning a bakery.
After the baker refuses to tell them the secret muffin recipe, the thief decides to steal the recipe.
The thief is planning their muffin recipe heist, and dropping by the bakery every day to eat more muffins (they are tasty after all).
The baker eventually offers to teach the thief how to bake some other things from their bakery.
A couple of weeks pass as the thief gets lessons from the baker, and they become close friends.
The thief feels conflicted about stealing from their new friend, but decides to go on with the heist anyway.
The thief breaks in one night after the bakery is closed up.
After previous conversations with the baker, knows the muffin recipe is in a safe in the basement.
The thief sneaks down to the basement and finds the safe.
The thief hesitates, and suddenly hears the baker behind them.
The thief apologizes and the baker understands.
The thief and the baker go on to be great friends, and the baker offers the thief a job at the bakery.
They work together until the end of their lives.
It might feel a bit weird or confusing at first when trying to find your own plot structure.
Try looking through your favorite stories. Find those turning points, tension builders, problems to solve, and moments of growth.
Maybe write them down so you can get a better feel for when and where they show up.
Eventually, you might not even have to think about plot structure too much, because you’ll naturally start getting a feel for it.
Regardless, I hope this has given you a bit of insight into how to structure a plot, and help give you some ideas for your own story’s plot.
Thanks for reading, and happy writing!